Series Preview: Australia vs South Africa

 

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Dan McGrath didn’t like the other series previews. So he wrote one himself.


Australia v South Africa isn’t a rivalry that has been borne out of one-day cricket, or the recent explosion of full member nations.

It’s one that goes back to the earliest days of truly international cricket. From Victor Trumper’s mythical heavy bat and Clarrie Grimmett’s match hauls, to South Africa’s last pre-isolation series (and, god knows, all those rebel tours as well).

It’s continued ever since. South Africa were the one side who could worry the Australia of the late ’90s and 2000s, and where Australia slipped, South Africa grew: take Sydney 1993, where Fanie de Villiers tore the Aussies out for 111. In 2001/02 it was a genuine (albeit very one sided) world championship contest, back-to-back, home-and-away, the two best teams in world cricket.

As the decade progressed, it was broken spirits and broken bones. It was clear for all to see – this rivalry mattered. The Adelaide blockathon, Michael Clarke’s 161 with a broken arm, the collected works of Graeme Smith. Neither side wanted to give an inch. This was real cricket, played hard.

By 2012, the series was a walking showcase; by 2014, it was the litmus test for the post-whitewash Aussies.

Yet since Johnson terrified the South Africans into retirement and/or permanent loss of form, both sides have hit speed bumps. Australia’s new world order became little more than Warner’s dominance on drop-in decks; South Africa has battled ageing players, political interference, team balance and terrible scheduling. And so we arrive at the WACA. Not the world championship decider that might have been predicted back when de Villiers was the only man to tame the Johnson-Harris-Siddle machine, but instead something of a throwback.

History can still afford serious legitimacy – even if modern form offers little more than a mid-table derby.

 

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Both sides come in with a multitude of question marks, but will enjoy the conditions served up across the country. Two teams who stumbled, no, completely and utterly imploded against spin in Sri Lanka and India respectively, yet who have no trouble piling on the runs when pitches are quicker, bouncier and, yes, flatter.

Australia haven’t really been tested at home since their silver generation phased into retirement: since Clarke, Hussey, Haddin, Harris, Rogers and Johnson all began to take up residence in commentary boxes, coaching meetings, or writing rooms, Australia faced India, the West Indies and a New Zealand side fielding an attack that turned out to be more paper than tiger. The decks were flat, breaking through defences was tough, and the top order helped themselves to mountains of runs. Scoreboard pressure and inexperienced opposition led to wickets, and if that failed, draws were enough to grind out series wins.

They have an untested middle order, barely getting more than a consolation pre-declaration slog against New Zealand or the Windies. Mitchell Marsh is a player of clear potential – potential which has, so far, amounted to little in the longest format. He undoubtedly knows, or if not, has been told by Chairman of Selectors Rod Marsh, that he must do more.

Marsh has been pinpointed as Australia’s weakest link: not deserving of batting in the top six, let alone with a wicketkeeper averaging in the 20s. Certainly there is an argument to be made for playing a sixth specialist batsman – preferably one capable of a handful of part-time overs – however given the nature of Australia’s pitches of late, the desire to protect seamers from excessive workloads, and a lack of depth options brought about by an expanded injury list, it is difficult to foresee selectors dropping the all-rounder. The ghosts of Adelaide and Perth 2012 are too sharply drawn into focus by another visit from the South Africans.

For that role, it is difficult to look past Marsh despite his failings. Moises Henriques is no certainty to be a better batsman at Test level, and his bowling is ever-more sparsely used even at domestic level. Marcus Stoinis is more batsman than all-rounder, and one has to assume that Daniel Christian’s ship has long since sailed (if it was ever seriously afloat at all). With no need for a second spinner at the WACA to partner Nathan Lyon, hence ruling out the likes of Maxwell, Head and Agar, the only serious option is James Faulkner: himself a new addition to the injured list.

Marsh and Peter Nevill should get the summer to prove their respective worth, after a 2015/16 Test season that lacked meaningful batting opportunity, and overseas failures no worse than many of those locked on for selection this season: failures made so much more visible without stats padded by innings at home. Nevill’s far superior glovework and glimpses of Test batting potential should allow him some time to settle, and to overcome his middling domestic and international returns in the lead up this series.

In many ways, this will be the defining moment for Australia’s new-look top order. Khawaja has not been challenged at home, yet fell at the first hurdle away. Shaun Marsh returns once more, every time arguably more deserving than the last, but one has to assume that this is his final opportunity; Joe Burns will be doing everything in his power to get a lift back into the Australian team. And when, if at all, will the dream run come to an end for Adam Voges? If there’s ever an attack to destroy the reputations of these batsmen, it’s the South Africans. They have no institutional memory of failure in Australia: they last lost a series here in 2005/06, and are perhaps the only other attack who can so soundly take pitch conditions out of the equation (an argument can be made for a full-strength England side, too). No touring team has been as successful over the past two decades.

Yet South Africa have their own frailties. In AB de Villiers, they are missing one of the world’s premier batsmen in a middle order that lacks consistency – although they’ll likely not feel the absence of his captaincy too strongly. In Faf du Plessis, they have an admirable deputy whose inexperience belies natural leadership and tactical nous; if anything, Faf may be an outright better leader. Dean Elgar has improved dramatically since he was Johnson’d on debut at Perth in 2012; the short ball plan will likely be brought out again, but even with Mitchell Starc matching Johnson for pace, his bouncers are nowhere near as threatening. It is a big opportunity for Stephen Cook, new to Test cricket but with years upon years of First Class experience. His record in Australia, albeit in few innings, is poor, and his warm-up performances far from compelling. But South Africa will benefit from a specialist opener opening, rather than shoehorning in (and promptly ruining) the next best middle order batsman available. Goodbye Stiaan; hello Rilee.

Hashim Amla is undoubted class, and du Plessis has the Waugh-esque grit for the fight, even if his recent form has been patchy. Temba Bavuma has solidified himself in the lower middle order, but has yet to truly put his place beyond doubt (or for his continued selection to be perceived as occurring on merit, not merely filling quotas). It is JP Duminy, however, who is under the most pressure. His bowling has regressed from genuine fifth to part-timer, necessitating South Africa play a specialist spinner, while his batting returns are at the point where one must ask if form has anything to do with it. He has had happy returns against Australia.

It is Quinton de Kock, however, who threatens to steal the show. There’s a history of match-, if not series-turning innings from wicketkeeper batsmen – Denis Lindsay’s suicidal 186, way back in the mid-60s, Adam Gilchrist’s then-fastest double in 2002. Without wanting to prematurely compare de Kock to either of those who came before, his hyper-aggressive and ultra-talented shot-making, on pitches offering little to seamers with the old ball, marks a showdown with Mitchell Starc as a must-see piece of television. Who says Test cricket can’t be entertaining?

 

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After India’s quicks flattered to deceive, those of the West Indies were popgun, and New Zealand failed to live up to expectations last summer, this is the first series in which Steve Smith could claim to be outgunned. These Australians have not yet been challenged by a team who can match them in taking wickets on dead tracks, but South Africa’s five pace options all have the tools to succeed.

In Dale Steyn they have the world’s best fast bowler, a man who can lay claim to entry into the pantheon of all-time greats. His recent years have been interrupted by injury, and his best days may well have passed, but he is still a formidable opponent with an incredible hunger to scythe through batting line-ups and win Test matches. In Kagiso Rabada, they have a kid with all the physical attributes, and bowling sense beyond his years. He may lack experience, but makes up for it in raw talent.  Even on unhelpful tracks, Vernon Philander’s unerring accuracy and subtle variation might trouble the decidedly un-subtle Australian batting line-up. Morne Morkel, may be the world’s best fast bowler not to be in a starting Test XI, while Kyle Abbott’s presence rounds out an imposing display of bench strength.

On the Australian side of the series, Josh Hazlewood is the lynchpin of the attack. His line and length at good pace, threatening both the outside edge and the stumps, makes him a Test match bowler of high class – after 20 Tests and 77 wickets at 26.40, he’s proven himself one of the best in the world. The hype rests with Mitchell Starc, bowling left arm swing at searing pace and having gone a long way to finally match up his red ball bowling to his limited overs standards. He comes in underdone due to his rather bloody training mishap, but is far from out of form – he was simply immense in Sri Lanka. This is a formidable opening partnership.

Their support comes from the experienced and hardworking Peter Siddle, the vegan workhorse from country Victoria. Whenever he’s written off, be it as too slow, too old, or simply not quite as good as the other options, he comes back into the side and proves his reliable worth. Rightly beating out Joe Mennie (who himself bizarrely beat out Jackson Bird) for the third seam position, even if Siddle struggles for penetration on occasion, he’ll support the main quicks well and give the batsmen very little.

It is hard to know the precise role that spin will play in this series, especially for the South Africans. They’ve brought across two newcomers, Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi, but questions remain over whom is the number one – or whether they’ll play at all. Shamsi’s left arm chinamen flummoxed the Australians in the recently concluded ODI series, but as the examples of Imran Tahir and a multitude of other successful white ball spinners have shown, Test cricket is an entirely different beast. When batsmen can wait on the bad ball to come, it is far more difficult to take wickets: Shamsi went wicketless and at eights against a South Australian 2nd XI in the practice match. Maharaj, on the other hand, took three at a far more sensible economy rate, but as a finger spinner is entering perhaps the most hostile environment he could imagine: even the all-time greats have come to Australia and fallen by the wayside, rendered utterly ineffectual – just take a look at Murali’s figures. It could be a difficult debut series if he gets the nod.

Nathan Lyon, on the other hand, has just about mastered the art of bowling offies in Australia. Using overspin, drift and bounce to his advantage, he has become a solid performer in spite of the pitches offered to him. Despite regular, inexplicable calls to drop him – be it for an extra quick, the next flavour of the month limited overs spinner, or Glenn Maxwell – Lyon is a perfectly fine bowler and plays his role well, even if he still struggles to tear through sides on the final day. And hey, coming off 4/10 off 10 in the Matador Cup final has to be a bit of a confidence boost.

 

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There is a story in every series between these two sides, whether it be an individual moment, collective dominance or a willingness to push the pain barrier aside for the good of the team. It is a rivalry that has featured stunning performances from all sides, where the slightest hint of weakness is exploited ruthlessly.

It may not be a top-of-the-table clash, and the teams may have flaws, but when Australia meets South Africa, everything is left on the field. There will doubtless be something from this series to add to the history books, to continue the narrative when these two sides meet again.

 

 


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